Coming off a season that saw CSUN lose more than 20 games for the first time in a decade, the women’s volleyball team heads into the 2006 campaign as a more seasoned group looking to turn things around.
“The team is (doing) great,” head coach Jeff Stork said. “Starting with last year, we had obviously a disappointing win-loss record, but a ton of development.”
After back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2003 and 2004, the Matadors had to start over in 2005, replacing a talented, senior-laden group led by Heather Fobian, Nadine Nickel and Jen Ryan with a slew of newcomers, including a young and promising recruiting class. Inexperience ultimately doomed a Matador team that featured 10 freshmen, two sophomores, four juniors (two of them community college transfers) and no seniors. The end result was a 4-23 overall record, 2-12 in Big West Conference play.
“We were a young team,” sophomore outside hitter Kelley Hanson said. “Most of us were freshmen, and just trying to rebuild our team and playing against a lot of really experienced teams, we didn’t have all the experience that they did.”
“Everything was new,” sophomore setter Kayla Wright said. “Learning how (Stork) wants to do things and then putting it to the court.”
Now a year older, having gotten a taste of volleyball at the next level and improving even further in the spring, the Matadors now feel they have improved as individuals, but more importantly, as a team.
“I don’t think we’re afraid to get on each other when we make mistakes,” sophomore outside hitter Harmony Burdine said.
“We don’t take it personally, and I think we’re stronger from the spring season.”
Burdine was one of the bright spots for the Matadors in 2005, as she finished second on the team in kills with 267 and posted a 2.7 kills per game average. She also posted 24 aces, which tied for the team lead, and had 271 digs, which was second on the team. Her efforts landed her on the Big West All-Freshmen team.
“I think she’s playing at a higher level,” Stork said. “Her range as a hitter is getting better, the reading of defenses is getting better and her serving is getting better.”
Hanson did a little bit of everything as an outside hitter and libero for the Matadors last season, finishing sixth in kills (123), third in digs (224) and tied with Burdine for the team lead in aces with 24. Hanson had two double-doubles at CSUN’s season-opening Fremont Investment and Loan Invitational on Aug.26-27, starting the tournament with 24 kills and 23 digs against Arizona State on Aug. 26 and ending it with 18 kills and 11 digs against Saint Mary’s College the following night.
The Matadors’ middle blocking also looks to be strong. Sophomore middle blockers Darla Donaldson and Jenn Probert showed flashes of their ability. Donaldson led the Matadors with a 2.91 kills per game average and a .236 hitting percentage while Probert led the team with 270 kills. Two other players, sophomore middle blocker Val Kepler and senior opposite Hilary Brinkman also played well in 2005. Kepler was fourth on the team in kills with 193 and her .220 hitting percentage was second on the team and Brinkman was fifth in kills with 132. Senior middle blocker Colleen Tobin and sophomore outside hitter/setter Alice Wang Xin will shore up the frontline for the Matadors.
Wright assisted 890 kills in 2005, which led the team and was seventh among Big West setters. Two other sophomores Amy Hultner, who finished third on the team with 183 digs, and Allison Sullivan, are expected to see time as libero and “defensive specialist.”
The Matadors also brought in three freshmen to help them turn the corner in 2006. Siara Grayson was the first recruit to sign with the Matadors during the early signing period. Grayson, a 5-foot-11-inch outside hitter from Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper Utah, started all four years at Juan Diego and was an all-state second team member her junior year in 2004.
“Siara Grayson is developing quite nicely,” Stork said. “She’s a powerful athlete, and most of it has to do with moving to the next level. High school and college is a pretty big change and if you’re asked to have an impact immediately, sometimes, there’s a little bit of lag time there, but she handled the matches she was in quite well.”
Angela Hupp, a 6-foot-1-inch setter out of Paraclete High in Lancaster, averaged 14 kills, 19 digs and 10 assists her senior year and was named as both the best offensive and defensive player in 2005.
“Angela Hupp has been setting and hitting for us in preseason and has done an outstanding job,” Stork said. “She has an outstanding serve, she’s a good setter, she hits well, blocks well and she’s a pretty good defender.”
Two other freshmen, Lynda Morales, a 6-foot-2-inch middle blocker from Centennial High School in Bakersfield and Kristin Lombardo, a 5-foot-5-inch libero out of Moorpark have not played so far according to Stork, but said that both will contribute to the team once they become available. Stork says that Morales has missed time due to ankle surgery and Lombardo is still awaiting clearance from the NCAA.
Another key factor to any improvement for the Matadors this season is the schedule, which will not be nearly as tough as it was in 2005. Last year, the Matadors had to face teams such as Hawaii and UCLA, which were ranked in the top 10 at the time, and also had to face other ranked programs such as Colorado State, Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine, which CSUN actually beat on its home court last September.
“If you look at our schedule last year, it was the strongest schedule it’s ever been,” Stork said. “It was the strongest schedule we’ve ever had at Northridge.”
This year, the Matadors only had to worry about one ranked opponent; No. 20 University of San Diego, which defeated CSUN in three games in the Matadors’ second game of the San Diego State tournament on Aug. 26. Other than that, the Matadors will face teams that finished around .500 or below.
The CSUN can also look to its past for encouragement. After going 2-29 in 1995, the Matadors did a complete 360-degree turn the following year, going 22-11 in 1996, including a 16-0 mark in its inaugural season in the Big Sky Conference. Though this current group of Matadors would like nothing more than for that part of history to repeat itself, a more realistic goal for the 2006 Matador women’s volleyball team is to finish near the top, if not at the top.
“One of our main goals is to finish in the top three in conference this year,” Hanson said.
The Matadors were selected to finish seventh in the Big West Preseason Coaches Poll receiving 23 points. Long Beach State headed the poll with 61 points and six first-place votes.